Virgin Galactic can't operate its space flights until the Federal Aviation Administration completes an investigation into the rocket-powered trip that took its co-founder Richard Branson into space.
"Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety," the agency said in a statement.
The FAA is looking at whether the SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.
The New Yorker first reported problems aboard the flight that began with a warning light and raised questions over the company's guidelines around safety.
The company had been planning it first commercial research mission later this or early October with a crew of four, including a Virgin Galactic employee and two from the Italian Air Force. But the FAA said in a statement that these investigations can take anywhere from a "matter of weeks" to several months.
Virgin Galactic did not respond to requests for comment.
Branson made a splash when he and five other crew members crossed the 50-mile threshold that the FAA considers the boundary to outer space.
Virgin Galactic has been in a battle with Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin over who could get to space first. The billionaires also are competing for a nascent commercial space flight market.
Shares of Virgin Galactic closed down 2.95%.
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Virgin Galactic has taken the wraps off a concept for an airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, to be developed with support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce.
The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Today's announcement follows through on the company's heightened focus on high-speed aircraft development, which is backed by a $20 million investment from Boeing HorizonX and supported by a deal with NASA to collaborate on supersonic projects.
Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.
Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane's engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.
George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made "great progress so far" on the concept.
Mach 3 Aircraft Design Courtesy of Virgin Galactic
"We are excited to complete the mission concept review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience," Whitesides said in a news release.
The basic parameters of the design call for a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating.
The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.
The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market's initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic's share price in early trading today.
Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into "quiet-boom" technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).
NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59's first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.
Mach 3 Aircraft Design Courtesy of Virgin Galactic
Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today's announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.
For what it's worth, Boom is due to roll out its prototype XB-1 supersonic jet in October.
Some wondered whether Virgin Galactic will be arriving too late to the supersonic soiree, or whether its plans for a high-speed aircraft were sufficiently realistic.
"Had to recheck the date on the calendar. Nope, not April 1," Aviation Week's Steve Trimble tweeted.
Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, meanwhile, tweeted an illustration showing SpaceX's planned Starship super-rocket and wrote, "Mach 3 won't cut it. The competition will be doing Mach 25."
If Virgin Galactic's supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it's cool-looking vaporware.
Mach 3 Aircraft Design for High Speed Travel Courtesy of Virgin Galactic
The agreement also involves The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic subsidiary that manufactures the SpaceShipTwo rocket plane and its WhiteKnightTwo mothership. The SpaceShipTwo model known as VSS Unity has already flown to the 50-mile-high edge of space twicein California, and this week it conducted its first gliding flight test at Spaceport America, its new home in New Mexico.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has long said he plans to make use of SpaceShipTwo technology for high-speed, point-to-point travel between destinations on Earth. That application is a big reason why Boeing has invested $20 million in Virgin Galactic.
Also today, Virgin Galactic Holdings reported its first-quarter financial results, including a net loss of $60 million, revenue of $238,000 from engineering services, and a "strong cash position" with $419 million on hand. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said more than 400 refundable "One Small Step" deposits have been received from people in 44 countries who are interested in SpaceShipTwo flights. That's in addition to the 600 customers who already have signed up and paid up to $250,000 for a ticket to ride.
SpaceShipTwo Unity Completes First Flight From Spaceport America youtu.be
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